Psychology, and its impact on Microsoft Books Online

In case you haven’t seen it, Books Online is the Microsoft online Help facility for everything that they produce. Books Online has a problem – how do they ensure that they produce fit-for-purpose material that is effective, so as many people as possible?
I’ve been giving training courses for 15 years now, in a range of topics from Artificial Intelligence, Business Intelligence, Tableau and SQL Server, for example. Training is hard work, but it can be a lot of fun if you have an engaged, interested audience. I’ve held precons for SQLBits, for example, and also for SQLDay in Poland. I’m also holding a training course in London on 30th May, on Data Visualisation and SQL Server 2012, and you can register here.
In order to be an effective trainer, I try to identify people’s learning styles. According to some psychological theory, such as Total Recall, by Joan Minninger, people have three different types of memory: Auditory, Visual and Kinesthetic. Basically, people learn and remember new material in different ways.
In my experience, I broadly divide people into three groups, dependent on the way that they intake new information.
auditory – the listeners – Jimmy Carter, for example, preferred to take his information in verbally. His advisors would tell him what he needed to know
visual – Winston Churchill preferred to take his information in by reading. He would receive memos from his advisors
doers – people who like to take in information by doing things themselves. I learn like this. I will throw away any manual you might give me, and just ask you for the login and password. I’ll give myself a task, and fish around until I’ve sussed it.
Remember that I’m trying to ‘hit the mark’ for as many of my class as possible, since I’m only with them for a few days. This is just my rough analysis, and I realise, of course, that the same person will use different learning styles dependent on the material that they are learning.
I think that the Books Online team at Microsoft have a difficult job. They need to produce materials that reach the widest types of learners possible; the auditory, visual and the doers. So, a video might suit the ‘listeners’ and some of the ‘readers’, but the ‘doers’ might not want to spend time looking at a video. I think that they produce material to try and reach all audiences, and I like some of the new look sites for Power View, for example.
In order to provide positive feedback, I’ve started to give Community Content feedback back to the Books Online folks. You can also be engaged, by adding comments to the bottom of the page. I don’t expect people to agree with all my comments, but I do it in the hope that it might be useful.
I hope that this helps, and have fun reading about SQL Server!

6 thoughts on “Psychology, and its impact on Microsoft Books Online

  1. Two things I think of when you mention BOL are cross-referencing and useful examples. The MS documentation has improved over the years in both of these areas, but more for commonly used topics. If you find yourself having to figure out something that is uncommon, these issues can make it very difficult still.

    I am not the sort of geek that can always just read the API docs and understand everything. I need cross references to quickly locate overviews and technical articles that provide the big picture. BOL is good with this sometimes, and terrible at other times.

    The BOL examples fall into three categories, good examples, useless trivial examples, and nonexistent. Too many individual API element descriptions fall into one of the latter two.

    Sometimes there is working sample code, which can be a great source of information, but BOL doesn't necessarily mention when sample code is available.

    I could think of other issues I am sure, but those two jump right out at me.

  2. I like to read and do. I have absolutely no patience for watching a video, which is paced by how fast someone presents the material. With reading material, I can go at the pace I want, and go back to where I need to when I want to.

  3. I like to read and do. I have absolutely no patience for watching a video, which is paced by how fast someone presents the material. With reading material, I can go at the pace I want, and go back to where I need to when I want to.

  4. @ clear middle –

    Help for Office VBA has gotten steadily worse since about Office 97. VBA examples are merely restatements of syntax, if one is lucky. Code has obviously been written by authors familiar with languages other than VBA, resulting in confusing or wrong examples. The examples provide no insights into actual usage, and often the examples are wrong.

  5. I agree about the videos. I am a visual thinker, but that doesn't mean that I want to spend time watching a video about something I could have picked up much less time from well-written text. I avoid “documentation videos” when possible.

  6. I like peas but hate sprouts.
    But eating either will do me good.

    I am a little cynical about learning styles. The reality is our brains have evolved to utilise our senses working together to exploit the immense interconnectivity within our brains.

    Most of these models give the same ultimate advise, keep it varied – which is surely just common sense!

    To give an idea of how crazy it gets you need to match your teaching style to the following learning styles:

    convergers versus divergers, verbalisers versus imagers, holists versus serialists, deep versus surface learning, activists versus reflectors, pragmatists versus theorists, adaptors versus innovators, assimilators versus explorers, field dependent versus field independent, globalists versus analysts, assimilators versus accommodators, imaginative versus analytic learners, non- ommitters versus plungers, common-sense versus dynamic learners, concrete versus abstract learners, random versus sequential learners,initiators versus reasoners, intuitionists versus analysts, extroverts versus introverts, sensing versus intuition, thinking versus feeling, judging versus perceiving, left brainers versus right brainers, meaning-directed versus undirected, theorists versus humanitarians, activists versus theorists, pragmatists versus reflectors, organisers versus innovators, etc

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